How George Pell’s child sex abuse trials were kept secret

And in the months before Pell’s first trial a County Court staffer was sacked for accessing the cardinal’s file without authorisation.


Pell faced two trials, because the jury in the first trial was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, forcing a retrial.

Australian media was barred from reporting it all, due to a suppression order designed to ensure Pell received a fair trial when he faced court for a third time later this year.

Pell was set to be tried a third time on separate allegations he molested boys in a Ballarat swimming pool in the 1970s. That trial was scheduled for April.

Prosecutors and Pell’s lawyers maintained potential jurors would be prejudiced by media reporting, and the County Court’s Chief Judge Peter Kidd agreed.

However, prosecutors decided to abandon the third trial due to problems with the evidence, and the suppression order was lifted on Tuesday.


Even then, Pell’s lawyers urged Judge Kidd to keep the suppression order in place while they appealed against the earlier conviction from the cathedral trial.

Robert Richter, QC, said his client wouldn’t get a fair hearing, in the event the Court of Appeal ordered another retrial.

Media lawyers and prosecutors said the prospect of another retrial was speculative, but the judge appeared set to keep the order in place, if only for a few days, while Mr Richter’s team began the appeal process.


But Judge Kidd also strongly indicated lifting the order at a later date was inevitable, as there was strong reasoning for the public to be informed.

Mr Richter dropped the application for the suppression order and about 11am Judge Kidd lifted the order. Journalists urgently contacted their editors: «Publish.»

While the Australian media plays catch up, an inestimable number of people on social media have been discussing the guilty verdict for months.

Pell’s name was trending on Twitter in the second week of December despite it not appearing in Australian newspapers, TV bulletins or radio reports.

For months, the first two lines of Pell’s Wikipedia entry have reported he is the most senior member of the Catholic Church to be convicted of child sex charges.

Lawyers who have spoken to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald say it was vital the first two trials were not publicised at the time so Pell could get a fair hearing in the third.

That same principle applies to anyone who faces multiple trials.

But lawyers say the case raises other points to consider for the next high profile person who faces a criminal trial.

How do courts respond to the changing way people get their news, either online or via social media?


As Judge Kidd noted, news doesn’t stop at the Murray River, but in Pell’s case it didn’t stop at Australia’s coastline either.

Global media, including The Washington Post and The Daily Beast, reported the verdict.

Under Victorian law, courts are encouraged to be open and transparent, and closing the courts or issuing more suppression orders could diminish the public’s faith in the justice system.

Prosecutors investigating possible contempt cases are currently focused on mainstream media, but will they ever look at what’s published on Twitter and Facebook?

Six people ‘liking’ a Facebook post about Pell’s guilt might be the digital equivalent of people discussing the case over dinner, but it’s a potentially different scenario if a high-profile person — an athlete, reality star or politician, for example — posts to their thousands of followers.

The Pell case will likely strengthen calls for Victoria to hold judge-only trials.

When Pell’s case went before the courts it wasn’t long after a review had been completed of Victoria’s Open Courts Act, which is designed to ensure openness and transparency.

In wake of the review, Attorney-General Jill Hennessy has asked the Justice Department for advice on judge-only trials.

Adam Cooper joined The Age in 2011 after a decade with AAP, the country’s news service. Email or tweet Adam with your news tips.

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